Key takeaways

  • Cash back credit cards reward you for the spending you already do.
  • Flat-rate cash back cards, bonus category cash back cards, cash back apps, shopping portals and issuer-specific offers can all help you maximize the rewards you earn.
  • To fully leverage the benefits of cash back cards, it's important to understand where and how you spend in order to match your shopping habits with the right cards.

With expenses seemingly always on the rise, why not get a bit of cash back on your everyday purchases? Savvy cardholders should work to learn how to maximize cash back credit cards perks and rewards throughout the year. If you’re using a cash back credit card, it’s important to understand how to get the most out of your cash back rewards. Keep reading to learn how to level up your cash back rewards strategy.

1. Evaluate your spending habits and find a card that suits you

One of the best ways to master how to make money with cash back credit cards is to simply choose the right cards. Before you switch up your credit card spending strategy or consider applying for a new credit card, analyze your cash flow. How much money are you spending per month? Per year? What categories do you spend the most in? What do you ultimately want or need from a rewards credit card?

Start by using a budgeting app or a pen and paper to determine how much you spend each month and on what. Whether you’re feeding your soul with home cooking or racking up travel miles with your favorite airline, make sure you understand where your money is going so you can choose a card that rewards you for the spending you’re already doing.

Understanding how much you spend helps you estimate what your rewards yield will be each year — making it easier to determine if an annual fee is worth it. If you don’t spend enough on a credit card each year to offset the card’s annual fee, that card is probably not the best option for you. Keep in mind, if your cash back card has a bonus offer, your rewards yield will likely be higher the first year you have the card.

Once you’ve noted how you’re using your credit card, you can identify which type of credit card best suits your lifestyle and typical spending habits.

2. Choose a card with a solid sign-up offer

If you’re in the market for a new cash back card, do your homework before making a selection. The best cash back cards come with excellent welcome offers and easy to meet minimum spending requirements.

There are plenty of cash back cards with solid welcome bonuses, including:

3. Find cards that offer bonus cash back in your biggest spending categories

In addition to choosing a card with a strong welcome bonus, you’ll want to apply for the cash back card that pays the biggest dividends on your personal spending.

For example, if you do a fair bit of cooking at home, you’ll probably benefit from a credit card that rewards grocery purchases. One of the best credit cards for groceries is the Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express, which awards cardholders 3 percent cash back at U.S. supermarkets (up to $6,000 per year, then 1 percent) for no annual fee. It also offers 3 percent back at U.S. gas stations and on U.S. online retail purchases (with the same $6,000 limit on purchases per category, then 1 percent).

Another card with appealing bonus categories is the Chase Freedom Flex. This card doesn’t charge an annual fee, yet you’ll earn 5 percent cash back on activated bonus category purchases each quarter (up to $1,500 in purchases, then 1 percent). The bonus categories are announced quarterly, so it’s tougher to predict value, but they’ve historically included useful categories like, grocery stores, gas stations and Walmart. The Chase Freedom Flex also offers 3 percent cash back on dining (including restaurants, takeout and eligible delivery services) and drugstore purchases.

If your cash back card has rotating bonus categories, keep an eye on your issuer’s cash back calendar and activate the bonus categories each quarter. This way, you’re eligible for the bonus cash back rate. Otherwise, you’ll only earn the base rate, which is usually 1 percent on all your spending.

The Discover it® Cash Back, for example, earns 1 percent cash back on all non-category purchases, but also offers 5 percent cash back on up to $1,500 in activated rotating bonus category spending each quarter (then 1 percent). Make sure you’re enrolled in these offers and max them out whenever your spending allows.

4. Complement your bonus category cards with a flat-rate cash back card

The best flat-rate cash back credit cards pair nicely with cards offering cash back in select bonus categories, but they’re also great for people who have no desire to keep track of rotating categories or earning caps.

With the right card, you can earn 2 percent cash back (or more) on all purchases with no annual fee. To ensure you’re earning the maximum cash back value from your flat-rate cards, look for bills you can pay with a credit card. Not all bills will earn rewards (it depends on the type of bill), but you may be able to pay your insurance premiums, utility bills, mortgage payment, rent, subscriptions and even daycare expenses with your flat-rate card.

To stay organized, add a small label to your card as a reminder of what to use it for, give each card a helpful nickname in your digital wallet or slip a hand-written legend into your wallet so you’re prepared to use the right card at the right moment.

5. Make the most of cash back apps

If you want to earn more cash back for online purchases, you often can increase your earnings through the use of cash back apps.

Cash back apps and sites like Dosh, Ibotta and Rakuten (formerly Ebates) give you a percentage of your spending back on qualifying purchases — on top of the cash back you’re earning on your credit card. For example, Rakuten lets you earn additional cash back when you click through the website before you shop with stores like Kohl’s, Macy’s, Nordstrom, Old Navy and

6. Take advantage of issuers’ shopping portals and special offers

Before you shop, whether in-person or online, look for card-linked offers from your credit card issuer. If you have the Chase Freedom Flex or Chase Freedom Unlimited®*, for example, you can click through the Shop through Chase portal before you shop to earn more cash back on all your purchases. While stores in the Chase shopping portal can vary, they frequently include options like Walmart, Sephora, Best Buy and Macy’s. Meanwhile, Barclaycard has its own shopping portal known as RewardsBoost, and Capital One has Capital One Shopping.

You can also check for additional cash back offers if you have a credit card from American Express, Chase or Capital One. Each of these card issuers have programs — Amex Offers, Chase Offers and Capital One Offers, respectively — through which you can opt in to earn additional cash back from select retailers.

For example, with Capital One Offers, individuals with cash back credit cards like the Capital One QuicksilverOne Cash Rewards Credit Card can earn more cash back with particular retailers. To do so, simply log in to your Capital One account and navigate to the offers portal. From there, click “Get cash back” to be taken to a retailer’s site to shop and earn additional rewards at check out.

Generally speaking, these offers are found in your online account, have limited redemption windows and must be accepted individually. Cash back percentages vary from store to store, and there are usually limits that cap how much additional cash back you can earn.

7. Use your cash back wisely

Finally, using your cash back rewards wisely is just as important as maximizing your cash back earning opportunities. Many people choose to use their cash back rewards as statement credits to offset their monthly spending, but getting a rebate on money already spent isn’t the only option. Sometimes, the best way to use cash back rewards is to pay yourself forward with your cash rewards by saving up for a big purchase you might not otherwise buy. You can also invest your returns each month and let your cash back pay you longer-term dividends for the future.

The bottom line

If you take a little time to spend strategically, you’ll be raking in cash back rewards before you know it. You can maximize your cash rewards by using one of the best cash back credit cards on the market for as many of your everyday purchases as possible.

In the meantime, you’ll also want to avoid carrying a balance so you won’t have to pay interest on your purchases. With the average credit card APR currently over 20 percent, racking up rewards won’t make any sense if you also rack up long-term debt.

*Information about the Chase Freedom Flex℠ and Chase Freedom Unlimited® has been collected independently by Bankrate. Card details have not been reviewed or approved by the card issuer.